The Wicked Governess - Blackhaven Brides, Book 6
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to Blackhaven, where the great and the bad of visiting Regency society turn local life upside down...
Can the governess teach a damaged hero?
Caroline Grey is devastated when she is dismissed from her post as governess to the Earl of Braithwaite’s sisters. Finding temporary sanctuary at the eerie and neglected Haven Hall, she does not expect to enjoy the challenges presented by the house’s dark and forbidding tenant, Javan Benedict, or by her mute and needy pupil.
However, she is quickly intrigued by the strange, oddly charming family and drawn into the several mysteries surrounding them and the Hall. What tragedy lurks in Benedict’s past, and why does his daughter choose not to speak? Who is trying to frighten them from the house? And most of all, what is the irresistible fascination of Caroline’s troubled employer, and how does she help him without losing her heart and her reputation?
Read an excerpt below
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"Love this series!!!... I cried and laughed out loud. What a wonderful book!!!"
"a beautiful story"
"I can't express how much I loved this book... a familiar place with a new, even more intriguing tale... a unique reading experience."
"A Heartstring Puller!"
"A great story with just enough mystery to keep you wanting more. A great book!"
"filled with, so much love, romance and mystery... Fast moving and exciting"
"The characters were very entertaining and had me laughing out loud"
"I had to stay up late reading to see how the story ended... "
"What a wonderful read.. sweet and unusual story" - Amazon reviews
Caroline Grey hurried into the empty schoolroom. After the excitement of yesterday’s wedding, she had allowed her pupils a day of rest and expected no interruptions.
Sinking into the chair normally occupied by Lady Maria, the eldest of her three charges, she tore open her mother’s letter. But if she had hoped to chase away her unaccountable blue devils with cheerful news from her family, she was doomed to disappointment.
The cottage was cold, apparently, and coals expensive. The roof had sprung a leak, and no one would fix it for less than an extortionate fee. In the circumstances, it was no wonder that Eliza had taken herself off to Edinburgh for a fortnight to visit a friend. Poor Peter had developed the worst cold of his short life, and the doctor’s fee needed to be paid from the few pennies left. Her mother claimed none of that mattered to her, only it broke her heart when Peter cried for Caroline. In short, could she please send another few shillings.
Caroline closed her eyes. She would lay money on her sister Eliza having left because of Peter’s cold. She could never deal with illness. It irritated Caroline but hardly surprised her. She could even forgive the fact that Eliza’s trip had no doubt led to the money shortage, and that there would therefore be no new winter boots for Caroline this year either. After all, the old ones could be repaired again. What brought the helpless tears to her eyes was Peter’s illness and not being there when he cried for her. Churned with anxiety and longing, she laid her head on her arm and wept.
“Miss Grey? Where are my sisters?”
With a gasp of dismay, she sprang to her feet, hastily dashing her sleeve across her face as she spun to see her employer in the doorway. He should not even be here!
Lord Braithwaite had left the castle for London first thing that morning and taken his mother with him.
“My lord!” she exclaimed. “I did not expect… Has something happened?”
“Wretched coach broke a wheel not half an hour from here. We had to walk most of the way back until we could borrow another conveyance.” He peered at her. “Miss Grey, are you quite well?”
“Oh yes, perfectly,” she assured him, with another surreptitious swipe at her eyes. “I’m afraid I allowed the girls a morning away from lessons. After yesterday, they were too excited to settle, and I’m afraid they have probably gone to visit Lady Serena, I mean Lady Tamar, though—”
“Miss Grey,” he interrupted, frowning as he walked across to her. “What has upset you?”
Inevitably, his kindness produced another flood of tears which she tried in vain to swallow back down.
“Oh, it is nothing,” she whispered. “Merely, my little nephew is ill, and I feel helpless, but I’m sure it is not serious , so truly, this is silliness.” Drawing a shuddering breath, she again wiped her eyes.
The earl, who was normally aloof if civil, presented her with a handkerchief and a sympathetic smile.
“We all worry about distant family,” he assured her, and gave her shoulder a kindly pat.
“Miss Grey,” uttered a quite different voice from the doorway, icy with barely suppressed fury.
Caroline jerked away from the earl in what must surely have looked a guilty manner.
Lady Braithwaite, the mother of the earl and of Caroline’s pupils, swept into the room and deliberately closed the door.
“What is the meaning of this?” she demanded.
His lordship cast his eyes to the ceiling. “Of what mother?” he asked impatiently. “Miss Grey has been upset by news from home.”
“And that necessitates you sending your sisters away and cuddling her with the door closed[EK4] [J5] ?” her ladyship snapped.
“Oh for the love of… Mother, the door was not closed!”
“Then how come I had to push it open?” she retorted.
“The window is open.” Caroline gestured toward the open casement. “The draught must have blown the door. Forgive my weakness, my lady, my lord. If you will excuse me, I—"
“Society is unforgiving, Miss Grey,” the countess interrupted. “And where my daughters are concerned, I do not allow myself the luxury of ignoring appearances. Whatever the truth of your grief—or your designs upon my son—you are dismissed.”
Caroline’s mouth fell open. Her ears sang with shock. She barely noticed Lady Braithwaite’s regal exit, merely stared after her, speechless.
“Braithwaite!” the countess snapped.
The earl swore beneath his breath. “Excuse me,” he said grimly to Caroline. “Wait here.”
As he strode after his mother, Caroline doubted she was capable of doing anything but staying where she was. Slowly, she sank back into Lady Maria’s chair, wondering how on earth this could have happened.
From nowhere, from nothing, she was without a home, a post, a future. Without a reference, she had little hope of a respectable position in another household. She would have to spend the last of her money journeying to her mother, and then who would pay Peter’s doctor…?
This is not fair!
But she’d known for a long time that life was rarely fair. Not to the powerless.
Oh, but she would miss those bright, lively girls she’d grown to love.
She swallowed. I will not cry again. I will not.
She wasn’t sure how much time passed before she was summoned by a maid to the earl’s study. Straightening her shoulders, she lifted her chin and determined to keep her dignity for the final interview.
“Don’t close the door, for God’s sake,” the earl said as she entered his study.
She was relieved that the countess wasn’t present. There would be less temptation to give in to fury.
“I’m so sorry for this, but the devil’s in it that I can’t change her mind right now.”
Of course, he couldn’t. She was surprised, almost touched, that he had apparently tried. But the countess, already smarting from being overruled on Lady Serena’s marriage to the impoverished Marquis of Tamar, would not give in a second time in a month.
“I have obtained you a stay of execution until tomorrow morning,” he said, with an apologetic twist of his lips. “Which at least gives me time to warn Benedict of your arrival.”
“Benedict?” she repeated, bewildered.
“Mr. Benedict at Haven Hall.”
Haven Hall… A flash of memory distracted her—a tall, grim figure striding from the trees, an ugly scar, livid and jagged, across a swarthy, frowning face.
“I spoke to him the other day,” Lord Braithwaite explained, “and he is in need of a governess.”
“Why?” Caroline blurted.
“He has a daughter, and I’m sure he’ll accept my recommendation.”
“But I’m not sure I can,” Caroline said in panic. “Haven Hall, sir!”
The earl waved that aside. “Rumor and nonsense. He’s just a little eccentric, but a perfect gentleman and extremely well educated. Besides, it shouldn’t be for long.”
She regarded him unhappily. “You expect me to lose that position, too?”
“Well, yes, in so far as I expect you to come back here.”
She blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”
He gave a lopsided smile. “Contrary to today’s evidence, my mother is neither an unkind nor an unjust woman. She is merely subject to temper and impulse—as well as being most stern about the proprieties. You must know she was angry with Serena when she sent her up here last month, only then, nothing would do but that we had to rush up here after her because she acknowledged her mistake. In a week or so, she will acknowledge her mistake toward you, too, and I hope you will come back to us.”
Caroline seemed to be spending a lot of today with her mouth open. She closed it.
“My sisters will miss you, Miss Grey,” he said uncomfortably. “They love you, and they certainly seem to learn a great deal more from you than their previous governesses. My understanding is that you also were happy in the position.”
“Then with your permission, I will merely loan you to Benedict and his daughter and reclaim you for my sisters in a week or so. By which time, hopefully, Benedict will have found a permanent governess for his own daughter.”
“I never even knew he had a daughter!”
Braithwaite shrugged. “I doubt anyone knew. He brought his own servants with him to the hall. I gather neither he nor they associate with anyone in Blackhaven, so no one really knows anything about him at all.”
And yet you will send me there like a lamb to the slaughter.
“However, he has recently employed a cook who is a Blackhaven woman,” Braithwaite continued cheerfully. “She used to work in our kitchen and is an excellent person. You may trust her implicitly.”
He cast her a sidelong glance, as though suspecting her—quite rightly—of sarcasm[EK7] . But he let it go. “As I say, I’m sorry for this, Miss Grey, but I hope we may make it right in the end.”
She met his gaze. “Then I wonder if I might ask a favor? I need to send something to my mother.”
“I shall frank it for you.”
As contented as she could be, in the circumstances, she left him to pack her meagre bag.
Lord Braithwaite had told her to order the gig when she was ready to leave, but having gazed upon the sleeping faces of his sisters for what could be the last time, she found she needed to walk off her anger.
She had neither asked for nor wanted the earl’s sympathy, and his mother must surely be an imbecile to imagine any impropriety in such an innocent moment. She seemed to regard Caroline suddenly as some kind of designing hussy, a siren in a drab grey gown and damaged boots, quite set upon getting her claws into Lady Braithwaite’s precious son. So now she was to be parted from the pupils she’d grown so fond of, disrupting their lives and her own.
It was a long walk to Haven Hall, but not the first time she’d taken the path. Then, she had just been walking in the autumn sunshine, unaware of where her feet had taken her until later. The hall itself had only been glimpsed between the trees, its tenant unidentified, even after he’d confronted her.
Her stomach tightened in memory of that encounter. She must have looked somewhat foolish and timid to him. But in truth, there had been reason for her nervousness. Strangers in the neighborhood had recently attacked Lady Serena and were hiding smuggled goods in the castle cellar—goods rather more dangerous than the illicit French brandy so familiar in Blackhaven. So, when she’d heard the unmistakable sounds of someone in the wood, seemingly paralleling her own path, she had been understandably alarmed.
Especially when she’d walked back the way she’d come, and still the crackling of twigs and swishing of branches had followed her. At last, the sound of breath panting louder than hers had compelled her to face the danger head on. After all, she’d doubted she could outrun it.
“Show yourself!” she’d commanded, halting and glaring into the trees. A huge, grey wolfhound had loped out of the undergrowth, wagging its tail. She’d never seen anything quite so large look so unthreatening. But her relief had been short-lived, for hard on the heels of the dog had come a large, scarred man, so casually dressed that she couldn’t tell his class or occupation. Swarthy and unshaven, wearing a battered wide-brimmed hat, he could have been a gentleman, or a farm laborer, or even a poacher. Or, with that scar, Lady Serena’s villainous attacker.
“What do you want?” she’d demanded, as the dark eyes regarded her with annoyance.
His black eyebrows flew up. “A rabbit for dinner. What do you want?”
Although his voice had been rough, at least his accent had been that of an educated man.
“Peace to walk undisturbed,” she’d retorted, although her ill-nature had been immediately diluted by the wolfhound pushing its great head under her hand. Without meaning to, she’d stroked the dog and even smiled at it.
And when she’d raised her gaze to its owner, he was staring at her with grim, secretive, unblinking eyes. A thrill of fear had twisted through her. At least, she’d supposed it to be fear.
However, apart from the dominating scar running right across one side of his face, he was not an ill-looking man. Perhaps in his mid or late thirties, he was tall and straight, his features harsh but even, his hard, grey eyes compelling, and his lips fine. She’d wondered if he ever smiled. Certainly, he hadn’t at her. Instead, his gaze had flickered over her like a lash and returned to her face. He hadn’t looked impressed. She’d wanted to step back from him, to run, but something, whether fright or mere refusal to give in, had kept her rooted to the same spot, her hand still on the dog’s great head.
“Peace,” the stranger had repeated with a twist of his lips. “Here? I suggest you look elsewhere. Good afternoon.” And he’d whistled for the dog and strode back into the trees. His gait seemed more uneven than the rough ground warranted, as though he were lame—or drunk.
The wolfhound, with a farewell lick at her mended gloves, had trotted off after him.
For some reason she couldn’t fathom, the brief encounter had troubled Caroline, even after Lord Tamar had guessed the identity of her scarred man as the tenant of Haven Hall. Mr. Benedict, according to Lord Braithwaite. Mr. Javan Benedict, whose daughter was called Rosa. There was no Mrs. Benedict, the earl had said.
That was all she knew of him for sure. But as she walked, she couldn’t help remembering all the rumors about him, for after her brush with him, she’d made a point of listening to the servants’ gossip and even asking the odd question in Blackhaven.
According to some, he had murdered his wife. Others said he kept her locked up in one of the rooms at the hall. Others said she had given him the scar on his face, or that her lover had caused it during a duel. Someone else had told her he stole children, a rumor which could, Caroline supposed, have come from the sudden discovery of the daughter who lived with him.
Then, on top of all those personal rumors, some said Haven Hall was haunted by the tragedy of its owners, the Gardyn family, and that its tenants were all either scared away or driven insane by the ghosts. Terrifying noises and unearthly visions in the vicinity of the hall had been reported for years.
Caroline discounted rumors. And yet, whether or not the man she’d encountered close to the hall had indeed been Javan Benedict, she could not help being alarmed by the prospect of the coming meeting. Lord Braithwaite had told her Mr. Benedict expected her and that, subject to an interview, she would be engaged for a trial period. This did not comfort Caroline. She didn’t want to be farmed out to strangers and strange children while she waited for Lady Braithwaite to forgive her for something she hadn’t done. She wanted to be teaching Maria and Alice and Helen…and enjoying the occasional company of the newly married Lady Serena who had become something approaching a friend over recent weeks.
But that was not an option. She could go home with no reference. Or she could go to Haven Hall and try to earn one. She would not even think of the countess’s forgiveness. She began to wonder, in fact, if she might not forgive Lady Braithwaite.
By the time she reached the overgrown drive, her meagre carpet bag of possessions felt as if it weighed a ton. Worse, the rain had come on half an hour before, and the wind had blown her bonnet off her head, playing havoc with her hair. If she had to come here, she would have preferred not to turn up on the doorstep looking like a drowned rat or some waif from the poor house.
The hall was even less comforting than the grounds. In the rain, covered with dark ivy and framed by filthy grey clouds, it looked even grimmer than its tenant. If Caroline had been fanciful—which she hoped she was not—she would have shivered with foreboding. Her current trembling was due merely to the cold and damp. Truly.
She trudged up the broken, weed-strewn path to the front door and lifted the knocker. Covering her uncertainty, she knocked rather too loudly for civility, but having done it, she couldn’t take it back. She stepped away and waited.
It seemed to take a long time before the door opened with a painful creak of hinges. An ill-dressed, dark-visaged manservant regarded her.
“Caroline Grey,” she said as briskly as she could with water running down her face. “Mr. Benedict is expecting me.”
The manservant didn’t trouble to hide his grin of amusement at her appearance. But at least he stood aside to admit her. She took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.
“One moment, Miss,” said the servant, after he’d swung the door closed behind her. He crossed the wide, wood-paneled hall to what seemed a very distant door. Despite his unconventional dress for a butler, he had a straight, vaguely military bearing.
Clearly, she wasn’t meant to follow him, so she used the time to squeeze what moisture she could out of her hair, cram some loose pins back in place, and drag her bonnet from her neck back onto her head. That way, she could pretend she was not staying, that there was still some alternative to this situation.
At least the inside of the house looked less dilapidated than the outside, although the wall panels and the table beside her could have done with a dusting.
The manservant didn’t vanish for long. He reappeared outside the distant door only moments later, and beckoned to her. Feeling as though she took her life in her hands, she walked toward him. She tilted her chin for courage and sailed past him into the room.
It appeared to be a dining room, the table set for luncheon. A girl of perhaps nine or ten years old sat there gazing at Caroline, an angry lady of perhaps forty winters at her side. A gentleman, presumably Mr., Benedict, had his back to the door, standing about halfway between Caroline and the table.
As Caroline halted just inside the door, the angry lady sprang to her feet, snatching up a whole cake from the table. She hurled it with force and fury, straight at Mr. Benedict.
Caroline gasped, for the woman’s aim was true, and she was sure the cake, plate and all, must hit him. But he simply ducked, and the plate flew over his head, shattering against the wall only inches from where Caroline stood.
Cake dripped down the wall and landed among the rest of the crumbs and broken china on the floor.
In the silence, Caroline turned her bemused attention to the scarred face she recognized. His gaze lashed her. Then he turned his back and walked to the table, his stride uneven as she remembered from their first meeting.
“Marjorie,” he said quietly.
The lady glared at him in defiance, her chest heaving. And then, muttering, she stalked around the table until she stood beside him. Together, they walked directly toward Caroline, who stepped smartly aside—away from the cake.
The lady, misery rather than fury staring out from her face, didn’t so much as glance at her. She seemed to be held together by a very fine thread.
Mr. Benedict deigned to flick another glance in Caroline’s direction. “I’ll be with you directly. Please sit down. Eat, if you wish.”
At least he didn’t comment on her disheveled appearance. Perhaps he was hindered by the cake dripping down his wall.